Home / Books / Book Reviews / Book Review: The Trap – Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America by Daniel Brook

Book Review: The Trap – Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America by Daniel Brook

Please Share...Print this pageTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook0Share on Google+0Pin on Pinterest0Share on Tumblr0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

It's one of the sound bites that seems to have continuing resonance: Democrats, particularly liberals, love to "tax and spend." Yet as reflected in Daniel Brook's The Trap, the kernel of truth that lies in the epithet is that what many liberals really advocate is fair taxation with spending tailored to needs that benefit the nation and its citizens.

Subtitled Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America, the book seeks to provide a unique take on the impact of the increasing economic gap in America. While Brook recites plenty of statistics indicating how the country's tax policies over the last decades have benefited the wealthy at the expense of the middle class, that is not his focus. Rather, using vignettes involving specific individuals, The Trap examines how such policies have not only impacted middle class America, but also education and public service.

As Brook points out, despite America's wealth and its ever increasing number of millionaires and billionaires, there seems to be more and more so-called "working poor." Yet The Trap goes beyond that. It looks at how costs for education have skyrocketed while federal financial aid was cut and shifted from grants to loans. As a result, many top-notch students have difficulty affording post-secondary education and even those who can often come out with debt that far exceeds what they can reasonably expect to earn. When you take into consideration housing costs in the six figures and the skyrocketing cost of health care, insurance and the like, chances are that many young adults face an almost futile effort to achieve the same comparative economic status as their parents.

The European stereotype is that Americans are greedy; older Americans stereotype younger ones as a mercenary generation out to get rich quick. What neither the Europeans nor the senior citizens understand is that young Americans want more money because they need more money. Even if they don't covet mansions and luxury cars, they need big bucks for housing, health care and education. In the 1980s, young people sold out to enjoy a life of luxury; now they sell out to stay afloat.

It is the "selling out" that concerns Brook the most. He makes a cogent and harrowing argument that this transformation of America precludes most college graduates from considering comparatively low-paying public service and public interest jobs. A prime example may be teachers, who not only have difficulty earning enough to pay school loans, they frequently may not be able to afford to live in the school districts in which they teach. As Brook notes, "In 1970, when starting teachers in New York City made just $2,000 less than starting Wall Street lawyers, people who wanted to teach taught. Today, when starting teachers make $100,000 less than starting corporate lawyers and have been priced out of the region's homeownership market, the considerations are very different."

For Brook, a journalist and Yale graduate, this also means a threat to activism and public interest work. Even though some college graduates may have deeply held social, political or economic views at odds with certain policies or approaches of corporate America, they have no choice but to go to work there in order to make a "living wage." Thus, more and more of the best and brightest forgo spending part or all of their career working in areas addressing basic social issues and the benefits such work can bring to American culture and society. Likewise, the risks of self-employment in the pursuit of an idea or innovation are increasingly great, serving as a disincentive to young entrepreneurship.

Brook fully lays the blame for this at the door of Reaganomics. At the same time, he is adamant that the Democrats are equally complicit. He says the success of the right in reordering economic and social policy to elevate the interests of the wealthy and corporations has resulted in large part from "the acquiescence of the Left." The Left, according to Brook, "took its eyes off the prize of building a more egalitarian society and instead worked, often quite successfully, to integrate the elite."

The Trap postulates that the way to rebuild middle class democracy in America is through public funding of higher education, equalizing primary and secondary school funding to provide equal high quality education to all, eliminating the salary gap that has grown between the public and private sector, and instituting a public funded universal single payer health care system. All this, of course, takes money. Brook contends the United States needs to adopt a true progressive tax system, one in which those with more pay more and those with less pay less. That, he asserts, would help fund these goals, particularly higher education and health care. Brook apparently believes simply restructuring the federal income tax is sufficient as he does not discuss such items as a national sales or value added tax as an alternative or partial replacement.

Brook certainly is not alone in bemoaning the growing inequality in American society. His approach is somewhat different in that he focuses on what used to be considered the upper middle class and exploring the more intangible effects on public service and public interest work. Unfortunately, the strength of the right in making "tax and spend" an unqualified and damning shibboleth and the fear, refusal or inability of Democrats to more strongly champion the egalitarian concerns Brook raises, means his may be another voice lost in the wind.

Powered by

About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.
  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • Ian

    The ultimate problem with the entire discussion is the problem of “who decides” about how much of “the other guy’s income” should be taxed? S/he who decides has the innate conflict of interest in that s/he is ALSO the one who exploits that tax money to his/her own end (under the guise of “serving the People.”) This “conflict of interest” gives free reign to politicians who bargain away tax dollars with lobbyists, special interests, and social engineers – and, indeed, the People suffer (as the subject article acknowledges). But consider the following dimensions of the problem, and then ask yourself, “Do we REALLY want to keep the current tax system?”

    Where is the outrage over sky-high taxes, regulatory costs?

    7/15/07 New Haven (CT) Register by Jim Higgins
    (Fair Use excerpts)

    “Reports last week from two nonprofit groups should serve as a wake-up call to Americans to start agitating for tax reform . . .

    “On Monday, the Competitive Enterprise Institute reported that the cost to consumers of complying with federal regulations exceeded $1 trillion in 2006 . . . almost 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. It’s nearly half the amount of government spending.

    “Even more worrisome, the cost of complying with these multitudinous regulations exceeds the amount of individual income tax paid in 2006, about $998 billion, as well as corporate incomes taxes of $277 billion.

    “According to the Washington, DC-based advocacy group [ Americans for Tax Reform ], the average American had to work through July 11 this year just to pay all federal, state and local taxes, as well as regulatory costs including workers’ compensation and unemployment benefits.

    “Congress should take one of two paths: Either cut tax rates and government spending drastically, or adopt the FairTax, an innovative proposal that would involve abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and its income tax and replacing it with a simple national sales tax.”

    Full article here: http://snipr.com/wherestheoutrage


    The U.S. income tax system and the U.S. economy are inter-related, and are in DIRE trouble. If we, the citizens of these United States, do not act aggressively to spread the FairTax plan with family, friends and associates – our “nest eggs” stand to be devastated through a coming economic meltdown (see Kotlikoff interview, below).

    Politicians are putting demogoguery and pandering above responsible governing – and they’re able to do it because Americans do NOT understand – at the “get go” – politicians’ / bankers’ hunger for ever-increasing shares of the working person’s bi-weekly paycheck; Americans do NOT understand the totality of taxes they pay. The FairTax shines the “light of day” on this, putting citizens back in charge to forcefully demand spending reductons.

    YOU AND I MUST ACT to mobilize public opinion, and get the FairTax enacted, because the signs point to a probable devaluation of the dollar (for reissuance of an “Amero” ? – under a U.S.-sovereignty-busting North American Union?

    [ NOTE: Does this help clarify your understanding of what’s going on globally? a) Bush’s persistence on rewarding illegal immigration? b) the North American Highway now under construction in Texas (to stream cheap labor into the covertly-planned North American Union marketplace designed to compete with 21st-century China market? c) the gradual increase in value of the Chinese yuan by China corresponding to China’s economic growth? (This will result in the dumping of dollar-denominated debt as its manufacturing economy grows stronger – which guarantees devaluing and ushering-in of the Amero.) ]

    Keep in mind, this NAU strategy – supported by the “super-rich” (member-owners of the Fed) – together with their politician buddies who want NOTHING to do with FairTax – runs contrary to simply making the U.S. a “tax free zone” for business under the FairTax. Politicians and bankers lose power when the U.S. is returned to a “savings-driven economy” from a “debt/interest-driven” economy).


    Read the summary, “Laurence J. Kotlikoff (*) on Long-Term Fiscal Problems in the U.S.,” and download the podcast.

    (*) Prof. Laurence Kotlikoff (expert economist, and advocate, of the FairTax plan)


    Powerful “elites,” members of political and monied-interest “clubs” reaching into the halls of power in Washington, depend on keeping you and me uninformed of their plans. It is up to YOU and ME to ACT – and not live in a state of denial – based on what we now know is clearly happening to our financial futures.

    After you consult the Kotlikoff interview (above):

    • (If you’re a member of your State FairTax organization) Contact your state or local FairTax Director to learn what you can do.

    • (If you’re just learning about the FairTax bill) Join FairTax.org.